Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
During this time of lockdown, thousands and thousands of Indians, especially women, have cut back on their daily food and fed the street animals instead. As the days drag on, the money has dwindled because no one is earning any money, but the hunger levels remain the same. My organization has been deluged with requests for money and animal food and we have helped as many people as we can with both. NGOs across India have pooled their resources and responded to desperate cries for help.
A person I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart is Eileen Weintraub. Not just for her generous help during the lockdown period, but for all the years she has put in to help India’s animals.
Eileen runs a charity in Seattle called Help Animals India. She is not rich – in fact, the most generous donors in the world are not “trust fund” people or inheritors of any kind, but people who have worked to earn their own money and then given it away.
She started her animal work early : as a child in Brooklyn, New York she helped the “stray” dogs and cats in her neighbourhood, often running into the same type of animal haters that we have to contend with daily and who make me really sad.
What is common in animal welfare people is our curiosity and spirit of adventure. Eileen evolved into a legal secretary and a nursing assistant and spent decades volunteering for animal advocacy, animal rescue and vegetarian promotion in California and then Seattle, Washington. Along the way she learnt acupuncture and became a Chinese Medical Practitioner (acupuncturist) and made three trips to Tibet. And then she turned her mind to India.
When emailing became possible in the 90s, Eileen started communicating with the few people that were in the Indian field. Many of them were foreigners : Christine and Jeremy Townend from Australia who founded the Darjeeling Goodwill Animal Shelter, the amazing couple from America, Kim Bartlett and Merritt Clifton, who have spent their lives in animal advocacy and have played a major role in disseminating information about India’s animal welfare to the world through their newspaper/websites, to name a few.
Eileen’s first donation from her own earnings was to Help in Suffering. She joined a group called Animal People Forum, taking on Kim Bartlett as her mentor.
In 2003 she visited India for the first time and met the earliest animal welfare groups in India : Blue Cross in Chennai, CUPA in Bangalore ( also founded by Crystal Rogers) and VSPCA in Vishakhapatnam. She was so impressed by their dedication that she committed to helping them with funds.
In 2004 when the tsunami came to India’s shores, Eileen brought it to the attention of the world and veterinarians and volunteers came from all over to help animals. They stayed to help improve the shelters, specially the Vishakhapatnam SPCA whom she has helped substantially over the years.
Eileen had started writing, lecturing and promoting India across the USA. No one in India ever documented their rescues – till now my shelter Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Centre, the earliest shelter in India, has never made a rescue film, for instance. On her trips to India, Eileen would take films of the shelters and rescues and show them to her American audience. In 2008 she formed the USA nonprofit “Help Animals India” to help animal welfare groups by providing financial and practical assistance. Since then I have seen her pour in money across India to small groups who would never have made it without her generosity. Her special pet, at the moment, is the animal rescue and sterilization group “Varanasi for Animals”. So many visitors from abroad visiting Varanasi were upset by the suffering animals and begged Eileen to help start a program there. When they started their work in Varanasi the administration refused to pay for dog sterilization, so Eileen paid for each operation. She also helps groups in Nepal, and now that the animal welfare movement is finally getting on its feet in Sri Lanka, I am sure she will look there as well.
When Eileen first started helping, the dollar was worth 40 rupees. Now it is almost double. So, donations go very far for the US dollar or the Euro in India/Nepal.
I first met her at the Asia for Animals conference in 2007 in Chennai. She came to my home and visited the Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Centre a few years later. Since then we have worked together, and Eileen, and my personal god-on-earth-for-the-animals, the Australian Philip Wollen, are the two people I can depend on to respond with help within a day of my asking them. During this time of lockdown, she has sent money to many groups across India. At the moment my shelter in Kolkata and the dedicated team that have kept it open throughout the lockdown and risked their own lives every day, the same group that has fed the carriage horses when the State Government that insists on having them did not extend any help at all, are in great trouble. The shelter has been hugely damaged by the ferocious wind and rain of cyclone Amphan and needs money to stand up again. Eileen sent 3 lakhs immediately. It is going to need at least 25 lakhs.
Dealing with India is difficult : when it is day for us, it is night for the US. But we correspond in the twilight zones of dawn and dusk. Every year there are enormous natural disasters: drought, flood, cyclones, earthquakes, now the Corona lockdown which has left street animals starving. The challenge to help is great and each one of us feels inadequate, no matter how much we do.
Eileen writes: “The work and challenges can seem overwhelming, but when you focus on one animal and one project at a time, you can have a great sense of achievement. Over the years I have watched some situations improve from abhorrent to acceptable, as international groups have stepped in to support the maturing knowledge of Indian animal advocates. At the same time an increasingly crowded, polluted and economically stressed India has increased the problems of wildlife poaching and habitat loss.”
Eileen brought another donor into the field some years ago. A truly good man, an Indian from Thailand named Harcharan Singh who heads Mission of Mercy. He gives small donations to small animal groups. But what drives him crazy is when people don’t say thank you, and he often stops donating to those NGOs that take the money and don’t acknowledge it regularly.
Eileen never gets acknowledged ! She is so much a part of us that we often forget to thank her and her donors. She says she is thrilled and surprised when she gets a thank you !
To save money Eileen works from home, a small suburban house. She has been married to Mark Johnson, an artist and former acupuncture specialist, for 38 years and they have no children. She is a fund raiser by day and a cat rescuer by night ! The Feral Cat project in Seattle, which she helped start, has spayed/neutered over 100,000 cats.
India’s constitution is unique in this powerful message:
“It shall be the fundamental duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the Natural Environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for all living creatures.” And yet we have no Government financial support at all. All of us – and I include People For Animals in that – are totally dependent on donations from civil society and, as India grows poorer and more crowded, animals are the last thing on everyone’s agenda. That makes Eileen Weintraub even more important. She and the donors, who trust her enough to send money to India, have saved many thousands of lives.
Maneka Sanjay Gandhi